Human Rights Watch
World Report 2007
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Audio Commentary

Press Conference

Photography - Year in Review

News Release




Assessing the Erosion

Cataloguing, even anecdotally, the many encroachments on free expression since 9/11 is a little like writing about global warming. The danger is real, catastrophic, accelerating, and yet almost invisible. So many things are going on at so many levels we fail to see the interconnections.

Among the interconnections is the chill that one instance of censorship throws upon other speakers (as, for example, in the selective prosecution of reporters) but also the pall that violations of related rights throw onto free expression. When it is unsafe to assemble, it is usually unsafe to speak as well, or even to express one’s identity in other ways. When the internet is monitored, blogging becomes unsafe, and freedom of opinion and information suffer. And the repression of speech can swiftly lead to other rights violations, as when a controversial speaker is first arrested, imprisoned, and then tortured, or when candid messages on preventing AIDS through condoms and safe sex are banned, leading to more cases of risky sex, and ultimately more preventable deaths from the disease. Had the White House and Pentagon managed to suppress all photographs of Abu Ghraib, it is difficult to imagine that the issue of torture and permissible interrogation techniques would have received the Congressional or global attention it did.

National security anxiety also connects many of the new developments. Security has justified restrictions on what electronic information may be accessed, what headgear or facial hair can be worn, what scholars may be invited to speak, what political arguments can be voiced, and what newspapers will dare to publish. And this is no new phenomenon.

In 1995 a group of eminent scholars met in Johannesburg to consider the relation between national security and freedom of expression. The resulting Johannesburg Principles are often invoked as reflecting the best practices of many domestic jurisdictions. They define as a “legitimate” national security interest only those interests whose genuine purpose and demonstrable effect is to protect a country’s existence or its territorial integrity against the use or threat of force, or its capacity to respond to the use or threat of force. Protecting the state against embarrassment, industrial unrest, exposure of wrongdoing, ideological deviance, or muckraking are not interests that can justify censorship.34

Our fragmented perspective on the problem is reinforced by the infrequency with which most people encounter new restrictions or perceive them. We do not suffer bullets or subpoenas, we are not accused of glorification of terrorism or hate speech, and we are mostly unaware of internet censorship or most forms of surveillance. That is, unless we are Muslims in Europe, Islamists in Egypt, journalists in Sudan, rights advocates in Uzbekistan, democracy activists in Vietnam, or Uighurs in China. Members of these targeted groups experience the full cumulative force of many forms of restriction and are painfully aware of the narrowing space they have for expression.

How can the rest of us be less like the frog placed in a pot on a stove that eventually boils to death because it fails to notice the gradual rise in the temperature? There is not just one practice to protest and reverse but a myriad of them, with each contributing to a new and more illiberal world.

One precept that has stood the test of time is, do not unto others as you would not have them do unto you. This works fairly well as a pocket “rule of engagement” to test our reactions. It is clarifying on the issue of torture to imagine how we would want our own troops treated as prisoners. Similarly, when evaluating concepts such as defamation of religion, we should imagine our co-religionists on trial for blaspheming another faith.

Another precept is that criminal penalties should be reserved for criminal actions and not for insults or falsehoods, however hurtful. Blasphemy laws should be repealed. There are other means to rectify many of the harms associated with hate speech than loss of liberty. A corollary is insisting on rigorous justification for each restriction of speech, with scrutiny of the magnitude and immediacy of the threats it presents, rather than opting for a categorical approach that lumps art along with incitement, debate with criminal demagoguery.

A third precept is that governments should cultivate a sense of global responsibility in policy. They should be mindful of how their own well-intentioned but restrictive laws and practices can take on a life of their own domestically, when different groups are perceived as threatening, pressure to censor spreads, or zealous prosecutors target types of expression not originally contemplated. Moreover, laws and policies that tread the margins of free expression can also wreak damage internationally, when removed from their domestic context and held up as a template by states that wish to justify crackdowns on critics or disfavored minority groups. Taking responsibility for policy also means not shifting blame—to unregulated corporations, answerable only for profits, or to multilateral fora, where broad mandates to combat support for terrorism can be translated domestically into laws that significantly encroach on free expression.

It is possible to repair the damage already done, but doing so will require a wide-angle perspective and a better appreciation that these days, silencing dissent in one group invariably imperils expression—and myriad other rights—worldwide.

Dinah PoKempner is general counsel of Human Rights Watch.

34 The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, adopted October 1, 1995, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1996/39 (1996), principle 2.